Wednesday, September 5, 2012

"Good People": The quintessence of Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati

     David Lindsay-Abaire’s Good People is an excellent jumping off point for people who haven’t seen a show at Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati (ETC) and a sharp, attractively dangerous choice for those who are acquainted with its past work.  Good People is a comedy-drama that faces what happens to the working poor who are one paycheck away from economic calamity, the lower middle class who
have some resources and choose to display generosity in helping those they know are less fortunate than themselves, and the upper middle class who wrestle with guilt over whether they’ve earned or lucked into their existence and question whether their assistance to others can even be helpful.  

     On one level, Good People is about how work defines an American’s worth, but it’s simultaneously about how members of a community support and owe one another over years.  None of these are easy issues and the answers are complex with Lindsay-Abaire refusing to push any specific political view.  Instead, a strong plot and original, idiosyncratic characters navigate what initially seems to be a simple voyage – dealing with a challenging home life, finding a job, and paying the rent to an examination of social class mobility, its stigmas, and the inescapability of past choices on present reality. It also flirts with the extent of the characters’ pragmatism and delusion.  I make this sound much heavier than I should; it’s a very accessible, realistic, well-made play with dialogue that’s funny, but which works on more than one level, and a plot that seems to move in one well-worn direction, yet ironically ends up somewhere more surprising because of the characters.

     ETC Artistic Lynn Meyers directs in her patented clean, elegant style that makes the material appealing, but she goes further to tease out some of the unsettling aspects of the characters’ beliefs and self-justifications.  Nothing is glossed over.  (I hope she pursues Clybourn Park, an even more scorching and dangerous comedy that won the Pulitzer and Tony awards).  There were a couple of times when I thought the actors were blocked to declaim to the audience, rather than speaking to one another, even beyond the convention of having to cheat out to the auditorium.  Brian c. Mehring’s set (and lighting) design is evocative, efficient, and subtle.  He utilizes a limited palette of cream/gray/black that captures both the back end of a rundown commercial building and the living room of an upscale couple; the bright green kitchen cabinetry in the second scene underlines the desperate hope of the main character.  The musical interludes between the scenes were well chosen.

Fitzpatrick, Wilford, Girdler and Dexter Playing Bingo*
     The cast is strong.  Annie Fitzpatrick has been a mainstay of ETC over the years and she delivers a performance that is fiercely funny yet also flirtatious in detailing her character’s need to wise crack an old boyfriend, who’s made an outwardly great success of himself.  Fitzpatrick uses her body in a very different way in this production.  She looks bony, and the cords in her neck and lack of make-up speak of her character’s decades of making do with little.  She moves like a flibbertigibbet.  Deb Girdler and Kate Wilford give the best performances I’ve seen from them in years.  Girdler avoids easy reactions and cheap laughs, though she plays the broadest character.  Kate Wilford finds a character for which her physical gestures finally make sense.  Chris Clavelli is paradoxically enigmatic emotionally and steadfastly physical as the man who got away and out of Boston’s projects.  As he gets angrier in the second act, his Southie accent becomes more apparent.  Michael Carr creates an awkward, decent, younger supervisor in Stevie and Margaret Ivey is ebullient and shockingly judgmental as the doctor’s wife.  Lisa, who’s from Massachusetts, thought Carr had the most authentic accent in the first act while others were wavering, but she didn’t even notice any of the accents once the second act began its inexorable momentum.

Good People runs from September 5-23, 2012

*Original Photo by Ryan Kurtz

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